By Munir Atalla
The Big Issue is a newspaper sold exclusively by homeless citizens of London. Bought for one pound and resold for two, the microenterprise has helped multiple homeless earn a living, realize their own self worth, and improve their skills with finances. But these days, people don’t get their news from a paper, and the life changing capacity of the “street paper” model is waning. Enter the creative advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), in the process of adapting the model to the digital age.
BBH has come up with a revolutionary social project that effectively turns homeless people into wireless hotspot managers. Each worker sports a shirt that has a code printed on it, along with some simple instructions. Buyers text the numbers on the shirts and are then given 15 minutes of unlimited Internet access for two dollars.
This project might have more to do with the power of the viral Internet trend than one might initially think. One of the unforeseen effects of cheap technology coming into contact with the Internet age is a monumental levelling of all people, regardless of social status, age, gender, or income. On the Internet, every person has a voice, regardless whether that person is a Tufts student posting a comment to Facebook from their MacBook or a homeless person tweeting about their life from a street corner in New York City. The latter might sound like a stretch, but it has been happening, thanks to a recent initiative called “Underheard in NY.” Another project by BBH, the program gave four homeless men (Danny, Derick, Carlos, and Albert) a cellphone with unlimited text messaging and Internet access for a month and asked them to record their thoughts via Twitter.
The results were astounding. Danny has over four thousand followers and was able to locate his daughter, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. Carlos, once a paralegal, is now looking for funding to start up his own business When pop artist Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” even he didn’t think it would come to this.
Strangers have been touched by the stories and lives of the people so often ignored. Although one might walk past a homeless person on the street, reading about their daily struggle online has allowed people to access them in a novel way.
After having caught wind of this project, some people were so intrigued that they wanted to meet the people they were reading about. Hearing the personal plights of the working homeless inspired many Twitter followers to reach out. Those who could lend a helping hand, did; one of the four men called these charitable followers “angels.”
While some argue that technology is pulling us farther apart, these occurrences portray a positive narrative of technology bringing us closer together than ever.
Just as the Internet provides an even playing field for people, it does the same for companies and organizations. Underheard in NY is not the first time viral media has been utilized to grab people’s attention. Another video on the cusp of students’ minds today is the recent “Kony 2012” video, released by the charity Invisible Children (before the release of a simple video, they themselves were relatively invisible).
Instead of competing for the large screens and billboards in Times Square, companies are now competing for the small screens people carry around with them on their cellphones and laptops, paving the way for a less monopolistic society. Although BBH has taken a lot of flak for their initiative, including accusations of exploitation, in my opinion, the net gain is still positive.
If homeless hotspots can take someone off the street and give them a renewed sense of self-worth or, better yet, open the dormant discussion about society’s treatment of the working homeless, it is an initiative that should be widely supported. In a turbulent economy, why not mobilize every part of the workforce?